Only two American presidents studied at foreign educational institutions.  John Quincy Adams attended Leiden University while his father John Adams served as a diplomat in Europe.  Bill Clinton spent two years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.[1]  In contrast, large numbers of heads of governments around the world pursued at least part of their education outside their own country. Evidence supporting this observation comes from an examination of the experiences of a recent group of national executives.

Understanding this aspect of the educational background of political leaders offers insights into their international orientation, their appreciation of politically valuable credentials and experiences, and the educational opportunities in their home countries.  In 2010 twenty-eight chief executives came to office and twelve, or 43%, studied in a country other than their own.[2] The relevant information on these leaders is as follows:

Chile: President Miguel Juan Sebastian Pinera. Harvard, M.A. and Ph. D.

Columbia: President Juan Manuel Santos. University of Kansas, probably undergraduate degree; London School of Economics, masters; Harvard, M.A.; Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Masters.

Costa Rica: President Laura Chinchilla. Georgetown, Masters.

Finland: Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi. High school exchange student in Germany.

Guinea: President Alpha Conde. Institute d’Etudes Politique de Paris (Sciences Po), advanced degree.

Honduras: President Porfirio Lobo Sosa: University of Miami, B.A.; courses at Patrice Lumumba University, Moscow.

Hungary: Prime Minister Victor Orban. Oxford, half year at Pembroke College.

Niger: Chairman of a military council. Salou Djibo. Ivory Coast, Morocco, and China, military training.

Slovakia: Prime Minister Iveta Radicova. Oxford, post-doctoral work.

Suriname: President Desire Delano Bouterse. Netherlands, military training.

Trinidad and Tobago: Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Norwood Technical College (now South London College), B.A.

Tuvalu: Prime Minister Willi Telavi. Northern Territories University (now Charles Darwin University), Australia, M.A.

The internationally educated executives represent twelve different countries, half of which are in Latin America.  They pursued their education in fifteen countries with the United States and the United Kingdom being the most frequent destinations. It is not surprising that Harvard and Oxford lead the list of universities attended given their previously documented role in international education.[3]  Nine of the future executives, almost a third of those who came to office in 2010, studied at the university level.  The three exceptions were Finish Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi who went to Germany on a high school exchange program and the leaders of Niger and Suriname who received military training.

Four leaders listed who came to office in 2010 had somewhat unusual university affiliations.  Prime Ministers Willi Telavi (Tuvalu) and Kamla Persad-Bissessar (Trinidad and Tobago) attended the University of the West Indies and the University of the South Pacific respectively.  Both of these institutions are regional schools established and administered by a number of governments in the areas.  The universities could be considered either national or international. The other two are President Roza Otunbayeva and Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev of Kyrgyzstan both of whom earned degrees from institutions in Moscow.  They are not included in this analysis because they studied in Russia when Kyrgyzstan was still a part of the U.S.S.R.

A combination of four factors accounts for so many leaders studying in countries other than their own, especially in contrast to political figures in the United States.  A foreign education carries considerable cachet in other political systems. Aspiring America politicians often cite their extensive and long-standing local connections as a significant element of their resumes.  Elsewhere a foreign degree is more politically advantageous than it is here.

Distance may be another factor.  I sometimes believe that American students who attend an out-of-state university consider the experience to be nearly the equivalent of studying abroad.  They have a point.  In many instances those out-of-state students would be further from home than a European student who studying in another European country. Five of the twelve executives travelled less than 3000 miles for a part of their education. A Seattle student attending a school in Miami would be about 2700 mile from home.

A relative lack of indigenous educational opportunities contributes to students seeking entry into a foreign school.   Eight of the states in this study have a population of less than five million,[4] and a per capita Gross National Income of less than $2000.00.[5]  The figures for the United States and the United Kingdom where seven of the twelve executives studied are 310 million and 62 million in population and $33,000.00 and $24,000.00 in GNI.  Smaller poorer states cannot offer the wide range of universities and programs available in larger more affluent states.

Finally, the educational patterns described here reflect the fact that English is the international language. Eight of the twelve leaders studied in an English speaking institution in the United States (4), the United Kingdom (3), or Australia (1). Six of them came from countries with no connection to England or the English language.

None of these considerations – the prestige of a foreign education, distance, demographic realities, and the prevalence of English – will change, with the result is that future chief executives from around the world will continue to seek an international education.


[1]   John F. Kennedy is often credited as having attended the London School of Economics but in fact he left after three weeks due to illness. E-Mail from Sue Donnelley, Archivist, Library, London School of Economics and Political Science, January 24, 2011.

[2]   For another analysis of this group of national leaders see “Changing the Guard: Executive Transitions in 2010,” The Public Record. January 21, 2011.

[3]   See the author’s “Oxford and Harvard: The World’s Political Universities,” Foreign Policy Journal, May 9, 2010.

[4]  Costa Rica, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Tuvalu.  See Web: 13 January, 2011.

[5]   Columbia, Guinea, Honduras, Niger, and Suriname.  See Web: 13 January, 2011.